Q&A with Julie Thompson-Adolf, author of “Starting & Saving Seeds”

Julie Thompson-Adolf is an obsessive organic gardener, nature nut, ecoadventurer, animal advocate, and seed lover. As an experienced gardener and garden writer, Julie is best known for her brand and blog, Garden Delights. Julie’s suburban “microfarm” is a regular site for tours and teaching. She’s a Master Gardener, has served on the National Garden Bureau’s Plant Nerds team, and joined with P. Allen Smith for Garden2Blog. Julie’s a member of Garden Writers’ Association, Slow Food, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and many other environmental and gardening groups. In her latest book, “Starting & Saving Seeds“, Julie offers the tools you need to become a seed starting and saving champion. Enter below to win one of two copies from Quarto Publishing Group!

How and why did you become a
seed-starting and seed-saving champion?

I’ve
always gardened. My earliest memories involve helping my mother plant petunias
along the side of our house. However, both she and my dad grew up in the years
following the Great Depression. In their families, they grew food out of
necessity—my father’s family lived on a dairy farm, and their garden needed to
feed a hungry farm family with a lot of kids. So, once my parents were
comfortable, they never grew a vegetable garden. It didn’t have the romantic
appeal that it offers to so many of us. But they did always buy the freshest
produce from local farms.

A few
things conspired to focus my growing efforts on food growing, in addition to my
floral gardens: the recession hit, and my husband was diagnosed with Type-2
diabetes. Suddenly, friends worried about how they’d feed their families if
disaster struck, while I tried to figure out how to better align our family’s
meals to meet my husband’s health needs. Overnight, I basically began growing
food—and helping my friends and community learn how to grow food, too.

However,
I didn’t want to grow just any food. I wanted to grow beautiful, interesting
food with stories to tell. I read everything I could about heirlooms—including
their history, the many varieties, the people who championed them—and I was
hooked. The first year, I grew 64 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. The second
year, I grew 184 varieties. It’s a bit of an obsession.

Because
so many people worried about the economy at the time, I tried to show that
growing food from seed offered a great value, and I encourage friends to get
together and share seeds to minimize the initial expense. Once you’ve grown a
garden the first year, saving seeds from the best, healthiest plants should
help minimize expenses for future seasons.

The more
I read about heirlooms, too, the more I wanted to help preserve varieties that
teeter on the brink of extinction. So, I spent time writing about heirlooms and
learning more about the people and cultures behind different varieties, hoping
to generate awareness and encourage people to grow those crops—and save the
seeds. I’m a member of Slow Food and Seed Savers Exchange, and they do an
amazing job of ensuring culturally important foods remain available.

Why should we grow from seed versus
buying starter plants at our local nursery?

There are
many reasons to grow from seed. First, you’ll find an amazing selection of
fruit, vegetables, and herbs available in seed catalogs—purple peas, gorgeous
striped tomatoes, speckled lettuce—that you won’t see at Home Depot. At the big
box stores, you’ll find mostly round, red hybrid tomatoes and some romaine
lettuce. It’s gotten better in recent years, but it’s still not great. Plus,
when growing from seeds, you can find varieties that perform well in your
region. Tomatoes that need a long summer to produce aren’t appropriate for the
cooler north, so it’s easier to choose plants to grow that are regionally
appropriate. Talking to farmers and home gardeners in your region is a great
way to learn what grows well where you live, as opposed to crops that might be
susceptible to disease in high humidity, for instance. Growing plants from seed
that do well in your region will ultimately make you happier, too, because
they’ll produce better!

Growing
from seed is economical, particularly if you partner with a friend or two. One
tomato plant at the store can cost $4, while a pack of 25 seeds (or more) is
usually less than $3. Plus, many seeds last for years with proper storage, so
that $3 goes a long way to ensuring tomatoes in your garden for years! And, if
you get a little overzealous and start too many plants, you can often sell the
extras. That’s how my business began: I grew too many plants and started
selling at our local farmers’ market. It was a lot of fun—and a nice way to
make a bit of money to fund my gardening habit!

Additionally,
growing from seed ensures better control over your plants. If you want to grow
organically, you know exactly what ingredients have touched your plant. You
also can better monitor the care of your plant. 
We’ve all seen those poor, droopy plants at the stores that needed some
TLC. When you grow your own plants from seed, you can ensure the best care for
them, combatting any pest issues quickly and feeding them to grow healthy,
strong transplants.

Honestly,
one of the main reasons I grow from seed is the emotional satisfaction that
comes from the seed to garden to table to seed experience. I love the sense of
accomplishment that a tiny seed that I nurtured grew into a beautiful plant
that feeds my family, or a lovely bouquet I can share with friends. Saving
seeds from plants started from seed is also a great feeling of
self-sufficiency.

In your book you mention that 94
percent of seeds have been lost in the past two hundred years.  Why is
this happening, why should we be alarmed and what can we do to curb this trend?

It’s a
little tricky to answer this question for me. First of all, I’m a fan of
science. My father left the dairy farm and became a well-renowned scientist,
and I appreciate the brilliant minds that help our culture grow and innovate.

However,
along with science came a quick growth of Big Ag. I have very mixed feelings
about it, particularly with its impact on family farms, heirlooms, and the
threat to our environment. Many food varieties became lost, because they
couldn’t be grown to scale or weren’t profitable. Many seeds were lost due to introductions
of hybrids that offered better disease resistance, yields, and other benefits.
Hybrids are not the enemy—in fact, many varieties solve a lot of problems for
growers, such as wilt resistance. However, when a handful of corporations
control seed production, it’s problematic. The resurgence of interest in
heirlooms makes my seed-loving, storytelling, history-adoring heart happy.

How does this book help us adopt and
practice a seed-to-table-to-seed approach?

Starting and Saving Seeds offers an easy-to-follow resource
that’s meant to be next to you on the potting table, helping you know the
tricks for starting different seeds. Some seeds are challenging—they have hard
seed coats that require scarification, for instance, in order to get the seed
to germinate. Some seeds need a stratification period—exposure to cold—before
they’ll germinate. Some seeds need an overnight soaking in water to grow more
easily. How does a new gardener know that? It can cause a lot of frustration
when you’ve sown seeds and nothing happens, simply because you didn’t know the
tricks for each type of seed. Starting
and Saving Seeds
tells exactly what each seed needs for successful germination,
growth, and—ultimately—planting in the garden.

In their
excitement, many new gardeners forget some necessary steps after their seedlings
have grown and before planting in the garden, such as hardening off. It’s so
frustrating to pamper the seedlings along, only to kill them by exposing them
too quickly to outdoor conditions. The book tells all the steps necessary—from
the tricks to getting seeds to germinate to potting up to hardening off to
growing the plants successfully, as well as when to harvest the veggies or
fruits—and when and how to harvest the seeds. It’s an all encompassing
resource, with easy-to-reference sidebars to help the gardener find information
fast.

Growing from seed may be
intimidating to beginners.  What advice do you have for those who are new
to gardening?

Don’t be
like me. Start slowly! Make a list of four or five of your favorite vegetables,
herbs, or flowers, and grow those from seed the first year so that you don’t
get overwhelmed. My first year growing seeds was insane. I felt the need to
grow hundreds of different vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers—I wanted to
grow EVERYTHING. I did it, but it was overwhelming, especially since I needed
to learn processes. Limit yourself to five things to grow inside, and maybe
direct sow a few easy seeds outside, like zinnias. They’re simple to grow and
highly rewarding with a great, long-lasting burst of color in the garden.

Also,
avoid fads on Pinterest when seed starting. I cringe when I see poor little
seedlings crammed into eggshells perched on a kitchen windowsill. Yes, it looks
cute for that photoshoot—but it’s not healthy for the seedling to grow with
several dozen others in one tiny bit of growing medium, especially without
adequate light! It drives me crazy the amount of misinformation on seed
starting that’s out there. If a gardener tries to replicate it, they’ll end up
with weak, leggy, often diseased seedlings. Just follow the easy directions in
the book. You’ll still get pretty Instagram photos—along with healthy plants!

For those gardeners who embrace a
challenge – what are some of the most notoriously difficult plants to grow from
seed?

Peppers,
tomatoes, and eggplants are a little tricky and good for someone who wants a
bit of a challenge. They like bottom heat, and the easiest way to grow them is
to invest in a heat mat. They’re not terribly difficult to grow, but they do
require a bit more effort and a little extra patience.

Some
perennials also prove a little challenging, as they can be a bit persnickety,
requiring stratification—and then, not even rewarding the gardener with blooms
until the second year, like many Echinacea varieties. Still, they’re worth the
effort.

Certain
herbs, like rosemary and lavender, grow slowly from seed. Again, patience is a
virtue. If you’re having trouble growing specific seeds, make sure you know
what that seed requires. Some seeds, like lettuce, need light to germinate, so
it needs to be sown on top of the soil, or only covered with a dusting of soil.
Other seeds, like carrots, will not be happy in rocky, dry, clay soils—they
need loamy, loose soil to grow well. Using the book as a resource will help
gardeners avoid frustration.

Every gardener has a plant bucket
list.  What plants on your bucket list do you hope to try growing from seed
this year that you have never tried before?

Trillium. I
love, love, love trillium, and I have yet to grow it successfully from seed. My
husband gave me seeds a few years ago, I started them…and I killed them.

Trillium takes up to TWO YEARS to germinate, and another
five to seven years before the plants bloom. As much as I love the plant and
love seeds—I just don’t have that patience. I’m trying hard to cultivate
patience this year!

My friend recently asked me to try to grow various Protea
seeds for her. I’m excited to try them—I’ve never grown them! Still, they take
one to three months for germination. I’m going to practice patience, since I
don’t want to kill her seeds.

Honestly, if I’ll try to grow anything from seed. Why not?
It’s so much fun, and the rewards are worth the challenge!

Enter to win one of two copies of Starting & Saving Seeds!

 

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight (EST) on Sunday, May 26, 2019 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Why do you want to become a seed-starting and seed-saving champion?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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